Help me, help them, help us all
December 7, 2011 1:53 PM   Subscribe

I need a book recommendation for my conservative parents, something of critical thinking subject matter but not tip them off its picked to change the way they think.

My dad is a retired union dockworker turned Fox News watcher. My Mother is conservative-lite, after getting Palin's book last X-mas stated, "She's not a politician but is a patriot.".

I can't give them anything as obvious as the books suggested in this thread. If the book is about a former conservative's journey to the left or Howard Zinn diatribe, they will be a tipped off and not read it. The title or subject matter needs to be aligned with general interests but maybe have them think in more critical terms. Maybe something along the lines of A Short History of Everything, but you know...fact checked. Its a tall order, I know you won't let me down.
posted by MiltonRandKalman to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A Studs Terkel book, like "Working." Struggles and language of regular folks, liberal agenda in there but pretty subtle.
posted by steinsaltz at 2:01 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why not avoid the issue of ideology and go with something about human biases? Like Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Or either of Daniel Ariely's books on irrationality.

For policy, I really liked Poor Economics for strongly avoiding the emotional traps both sides fall into when talking about poverty. Its a difficult line to walk, and an unsatisfying one, because it doesn't pretend there's a silver bullet. (Either that more aid will eradicate poverty, or that the poor deserve it so we can feel okay about ignoring the issue)

But you should also realize that it's difficult to overcome an innate trait of emotional thinking (and most people over-estimate the role critical thinking plays in their beliefs), and that most demographics experience a natural sway towards conservatism as they age. So the above books might also help you in looking past the political differences you have with them.
posted by politikitty at 2:13 PM on December 7, 2011

Its very difficult to have people question their beliefs critically, or well sunk in ideology. The best solution I've found is when people are challenged in real life situations. From that point, two situations tend to follow. One is cognitive dissonance, i.e. "John is black and he isn't lazy, but an exception to the rule". Or people begin to question beliefs they've firmly held.

For instance, I have a friend whom was rather anti-gay based on "christian beliefs". Yet when he had a church group go out to help the underserved population in SanFran and actually worked with gay and lesbian groups he came back and told me about his change of heart. To be honest, I was really moved as he is a good guy and not someone I'd want to think of as a bigot. I also let him know that I thought it was really strong of him to admit perhaps he held incorrect views.

Its hard, but not always impossible.

Re: margarita mix, it isnt necessarily a dick move. People we care about should be shown at times the logical inconsistencies and fallacies they hold. Plus reality has a liberal bent.
posted by handbanana at 2:18 PM on December 7, 2011

I'm not being sarcastic when I say The Bible. If faith is important to them they'll be thrilled by your discussions inquiries into Jesus' compassion and charity. I was blown away to hear my dear neighbor, the most faithful woman I know, carry on about not giving out Halloween candy because of all the poor families brought their children to partake. Ten bucks would have fed the multitudes but this was foreign to her thinking.
posted by R2WeTwo at 2:22 PM on December 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Good point on the bible. I am an devout, outspoken atheist but the Jesus portrayed in the bible is a wonderful guy who should the better soon side of humanity.
posted by handbanana at 2:28 PM on December 7, 2011

Your first objective should be to get them reading actual books with some intellectual content, even if they lean "conservative". For example, An Empire of Wealth, or They Made America. And you read them too, so you have something to talk about. Which is what will really make the difference if you want to change their thinking.
posted by blargerz at 2:41 PM on December 7, 2011

This may be too overt (or out of their comfort range), but what about something like Random Family? I read it as a liberal college student and was blown away by the realization that the people in that world live in my country - the culture is so foreign and so entrenched that it's difficult to continue believing in the "anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps" ideology after reading it. I did give a copy to my Republican father, not out of any agenda but just because I thought he'd find it fascinating, and he enjoyed it.
posted by something something at 2:46 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Edmund Morris' Theodore Roosevelt trilogy? The first volume won the Pulitzer, Obama's reading it, and come on, Teddy Roosevelt! You can't go wrong.
posted by jabes at 2:50 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since your father's Catholic, why not something like What's Wrong With The World or Common Sense 101: Lessons from G. K. Chesterton? Chesterton famously fused conservative (if not reactionary) Catholic orthodoxy with full-throated calls for social justice. There's plenty to dislike about Chesterton, but there's also plenty to love, and what's most important, after you've read a few books by him, you'll feel awfully silly trying to be a capitalist fat cat and a devout Catholic.

Alternatively, you could get him a good, objective book on the goings-on in the build-up to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:36 PM on December 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Stephen Pinker is fairly conservative, but his books aren't particularly and he's a fairly critical thinker with a lot of thought provoking ideas. He shouldn't set your dad's teeth on edge. Niall Fergusson, is another conservative writer who generally produces intelligent books.

If the conservatism is religious fundamentalism or xenophobia against Muslims, then Karen Armstrong's A History of God is very apolitical, but also extremely detailed about Muslim history and should blow away a bunch of prejudices if they actually read it.
posted by empath at 3:39 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, a box set of The Wire could be quite the eye-opener about society's problems.
posted by empath at 3:41 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recently read Between a Rock and a Hard Place by former Oregon Senator (recently deceased) Mark Hatfield. He was a Evangelical Republican Senator who believed strongly in social justice. He wrote the book in the 1970s and was influenced by E.F. Shumacher's ideas in Small is Beautiful.

You'd have to buy a used copy.
posted by perhapses at 3:49 PM on December 7, 2011

This isn't going to work if you pick something that's both difficult to think through and in any way challenging to their beliefs. I pretty much don't like the idea of challenging their beliefs (in part because that's really not a cool thing to do with a gift and in part because, having grown up around people who are dead set in their political orientation, I have yet to see any firmly committed adult change their mind about anything after reading a book - they're looking to confirm biases and gain evidence and such.)

So! Things that are almost certainly in line with the way they view things but which are somewhat difficult or complex to grasp intellectually (they take work):

Anything by CS Lewis, but especially Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, or The Weight of Glory
Anything by William F. Buckley, but mostly God and Man at Yale
Anything by the people who CS Lewis really liked (especially GK Chesterton, Sir Walter Scott, and George MacDonald)
Anything by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but especially One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

If they ask, tell them Reagan loved Lewis, Buckley, and Solzhenitsyn.

You might also consider a subscription to something like the Claremont Review of Books. It's quite a bit more engaging than the vast majority of, e.g., talk radio.

Also buy them something that you know for sure they'll like. Generally when I try to give someone something that will "improve" them in some way, it gets... underutilized.
posted by SMPA at 4:26 PM on December 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

[ folks, question is not anon, side comments can go to the OP or others directly. thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:39 PM on December 7, 2011

I'd get your dad a biography of Winston Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt -- a really engaging one. Your mom might like to read about Abigail Adams.
posted by michaelh at 6:42 PM on December 7, 2011

Oh just get them something they'd like. You're not likely to change their minds, and frankly, if my kids decided to school me via a Christmas gift, I'd be a tich put out. Retire dockworker? Maybe you should give the man a foot massage and some nice Scotch.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:11 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can't fix your parents, and you shouldn't try.

A child's mission in life to disappoint its parents and vice versa. 'Twas ever thus and changing this is beyond the abilities of we mere mortals.

Just buy them something you can both enjoy. If you want to be a little bit subversive, try Pratchett.
posted by flabdablet at 1:04 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm curious ... in which respects, specifically, are your parents conservative? Do they ...

(a) endorse conservative economic ideas, like supply side analysis or budget austerity?

(b) have conservative social commitments, like opposition to LGBT rights or abortion rights?

(c) have an anti-science attitude, like denying evolution or climate change?

(d) agree with "blood and soil" politics, like limiting immigration and punishing illegals?

(e) take a strong stand on the function of the courts, like opposing "judicial activism" or supporting originalism or strict constructionism about the Constitution?


In what way do you want to change your parents' attitudes? And, how did you find yourself convinced of your current beliefs? You ought to try to consider what experiences your parents have had that have led them to their current beliefs, and you ought to consider what experiences you have had that have led you to yours. Think about what is common and what is different in your experiences. That might help you to see an effective way to persuade them. Or it might lead you to re-evaluate your own positions.

You might also ask yourself whether your parents have the beliefs they do because of ideology or because of faulty evidence. Maybe the thing to do is give them something as purely factual as possible in an area that you care about.

(Also, my wife cautions that such a gift might just be a way to make Christmas miserable for everyone.)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 7:47 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

This might seem to be not exactly what you're looking for, but I think Guns Germs and Steel might actually be an excellent choice. I read it in high school, and I think it was the beginning of my transition from vaguely libertarian to pretty darn socialist. The essential message of the book is that groups of people succeed and fail pretty much entirely due to chance and circumstance, not personal virtue. And it has nothing to do with politics, per se.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:03 PM on December 8, 2011

Honestly, I find it fairly hokey, but for family style recommended reading into broadened thought, I'd recommend a more surface-level book like Ishmael. The family-types I know are not submersed in literature and it's more helpful to offer something a little lighter to grasp.

Then, if they appreciate that and depending on their opinion, you might be able to move them on to something more radical or challenging.
posted by thewolfandewe at 7:29 PM on December 8, 2011

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